Skinned; alive

In this skin, at times you find yourself roiled. Itching to bursting.

It could be that someone you know finds herself in a college class where the professor—in the name of raising racial, gender, and other awareness—invites racist, sexist, homophobic, and other comments on a course bulletin board, then fails to confront or even read the discourse he has set in motion. It could be that on a professional website you frequent, a commenter calls the possibility of racism in books written 100 or so years ago “ridiculous.”

Small, insignificant events. Irritants. Like a paper cut or the surface abrasion you get from skidding on the rug. Carpet burns. Each experience takes just a bit of your skin: a patch from the thigh, some more from the back of your hand.

Of course they scrape you at every other turn. You’ve learned not to read the comments section in online articles because you know the vitriol into which they often descend, always political (read “Obama is…”), often racist. But even to label them racist or sexist or bigoted in a thousand other ways, even to yourself, can rub away another patch of your skin. You begin to wonder whether it’s you. Are you paranoid? Are you overly sensitive? A long line of people stretched along the internet will be happy to tell you so.

And in your skin you begin to twist, muscles and organs knotting themselves. On the outside, you feel yourself more a more a giant scab, everywhere spots tender to the touch just beneath a dry, hardening surface. You become more reluctant to touch anyone, never knowing from what contact the next abrasion will come. At times you fear for those you love, for your children and their future, for the bruises they will sustain.

And in this state, you wander about your house for a while, imagining ways to anonymously humiliate the thoughtless professor or insult the thoughtless commenter. You begin to concoct revenge scenarios. But with each scheme, you feel yourself more out of control, more at the emotional mercy of the ignorant and the stunted, which in your mind encompasses more and more of humanity until you can see yourself as the solitary hero of some zombie film, trapped in a basement, surrounded by walking intellectual and emotional dead.

Then something strange happens, something unexpected and improbable, like a deus ex machina: A song filters into your head, perhaps one you stumbled upon looking for something else by someone else. It might sound like this. You hear it play in your mind, you take out the chords you downloaded, and you begin to work them out on the electronic keyboard in the living room. You have played it before, very badly, but this time the notes and your fingers might find one another; you might hear from the keyboard something like what you hear in your head. You find another song, and you travel further.

Inside you, without your permission, the twisting begins to unknot itself. New skin begins to quilt itself, and some of the scabs fall away. And gradually the idea that people write music or poems or paint paintings or take photographs not for fame or money but out of survival sounds not only possible to obvious. You might find yourself returning to the truth that art is your answer. Not the answer, just your answer, the one that fills you as air fills your lungs when you draw a deep breath, as clear water flows down your throat on a sweltering day. You know what is keeping you alive.

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